It was Peter Gelzinis’ column in today’s Boston Herald that got me thinking about the case of Tarek Mehanna, the Sudbury man on trial for terrorism-related charges in U.S. District Court in Boston.
Mehanna’s lawyer, J.W. Carney, argues that Mehanna’s activities have been limited to advocacy on behalf of Al Qaeda, which is protected by the First Amendment. But prosecutors, as Milton Valencia reports in today’s Boston Globe, have been suggesting that Mehanna is guilty of actual terrorist activities, including traveling to Yemen to receive training.
So I sat up and took notice when I saw this quote in Gelzinis’ column, in which federal prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty tells the jury that Mehanna had translated documents such as “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” into English. “Simply agreeing to do that is a crime in this country,” Chakravarty said.
Well, it may be a crime, but if it is, the law under which Mehanna has been charged is almost certainly unconstitutional. Essentially, Mehanna is being charged with incitement to violence, a category of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment, and can thus be prosecuted. But the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that speech cannot be considered incitement unless it presents a genuine threat of immediate harm — a right-here, right-now standard that does not apply to general calls for violence.
In 1969, the court ruled that a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg could not be prosecuted for calling for “revengeance” (no, not a word, but Klan leaders tend not to be too brite) against Jews and African-Americans, ruling in Brandenburg v. Ohio:
Freedoms of speech and press do not permit a State to forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
Eight years later, the courts overturned efforts by officials in Skokie, Ill., aimed at preventing a neo-Nazi group from marching through the streets of their community. The Supreme Court, having spoken in the Brandenburg case, declined to get involved.
To the extent that Mehanna’s alleged crimes amount to pure advocacy, even of violence against the government and of terrorism, his speech is protected by the First Amendment. As Carney says, “We can hold onto these views, and we can speak them, even if it’s what upsets the United States government. It’s what makes the United States so great, so strong, and so free.”
I find it shocking that Chakravarty read to the jury an ode Mehanna allegedly wrote to commemorate the terrorist attacks of 9/11. If that isn’t protected speech, well, I don’t know what is. It’s the speech we find most loathsome that is in the greatest need of protection. Keep that in mind as this case moves forward.